Father Mark, Reflections

I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours

I remember sharing secrets with my inner circle of friends growing up.  At that young age, telling one’s secrets was a nervous endeavor as we had sworn not to tell another soul.  Cross my heart and hope to die and stick a needle in my eye was our oath of anonymity.  But what if someone broke the oath and told another?   The vulnerability was intense. 

What I’ve found after decades in the church that for the most part, few of us tell our experiences of how God has touched our lives.  It’s like we’re sworn to secrecy and that we might be laughed at or some other vulnerable way face rejection if we tell our story of how God has impacted our lives. 

I never ask anyone to do what I won’t do myself.  So I thought I’d ask the question to all of us:  How do you recall your first meetings or experiences of Jesus?  Since I don’t ask others to do something that I won’t do myself, I’ll offer two of mine. 

The first experience is vivid in my memory while I am surprised that I remember back to the time when I was between two to three years old.  My mother and father sat in church in the back row on the Epistle (right) side of the congregation (children were at the risk of making noise).  At age two, the distance to the altar seemed to be endless, looking at two individuals at the altar dressed in black and white robes (surplice and cassock) moving objects while talking, having no idea of what they were saying.  Everyone else was wrapped in silence.  Something was happening up there but I couldn’t tell what it was.  But I felt it—whatever it was.  A mysterious presence was happening.  I felt it Sunday after Sunday—and the feeling got bigger as the Sundays passed.  The mystery held me in its grip with a sense of awe and wonder. 

The mystery continued even when we moved across town to a 19th Century brick Church building when I was three.  By late elementary school I would sit in the balcony—perhaps the old servants seating area and had the supreme picture of looking down at the altar with no obstructions being able to witness the whole event which I had learned was called “Holy Communion.”   I communed when I wasn’t old enough to receive communion. 

I was held by a presence I could not even describe much less name.  The presence still remains today and as the bread is broken, it’s like all of heaven breaks loose around us.  Still, there are no words to be found but a presence to be received and remembered. 

A second experience of meeting Jesus was during a large children’s chapel in the gym on Palm Sunday when I was in the upper grades of elementary school.  There must have been fifty or more of us crammed into the gym.  I remember Lew Thomas, the children’s lay reader that everyone loved, had a whole cart of small potted plants.  He was telling a story of Jesus at the time of Palm Sunday and he spoke of Good Friday when all of a sudden he took one of the plants and literally mashed it down flat with one of his hands when he said that Jesus was killed—crucified.   I wasn’t expecting that at all.  The room went “uhhh” and then fell silent.  Then he gave the crushed plant to one of the children to bring back to life.  The rest of us received our own potted plant.   I didn’t have the heart to crush mine. 

This was my first image of Christ’s suffering and death.  We always talked about the resurrection but somehow the suffering and dying part we never got around to until then.  The words of Gabriel to Mary later described what I was feeling at that moment in his words: A sword shall pierce your heart also (Luke 2).  That’s what I felt and I’ve never forgotten it.   Somehow, Jesus is present in the suffering. Even when I’d rather run away from the suffering, Jesus doesn’t.  This has given me strength all the way up to today. 

So I’ve told you two of my childhood stories of meeting Jesus.   What’s yours?   

Tell someone.  You never know who Jesus will bless through your story. 

Peace,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Election Day

Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.        +
Psalm 146

A few years ago, a group of us studied The Path which is a survey of the Bible.  Throughout Israel’s history the people when through cycles of faithfulness only to fall into apostasy, a period of dystopia and suffering only be raised up again to renew the covenant of faith only to repeat the cycle of disintegration after a few generations.   It didn’t matter if the political structure was a confederacy of 12 tribes or a king.  Saul was mentally ill, David who was faithful had his moments of darkness.  Solomon full of wisdom, later fell into an obsession with building a Temple and dragged the people’s finances and labor into it in order to do so. His son, Rehoboam was a tyrant and those that followed except for Josiah, didn’t fare much better.  Faith eventually slipped away into apathy and self-centeredness.  There was too much dependence on people instead of the Covenant. 

John Adams must have known Psalm 146 as he wrote, Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.  The Framers of the Constitution knew their history and created the document in order with a series of checks and balances in order to limit the power that any one group would have over another.  The following century, Lord Acton, an English politician and historian, penned:  Power corrupts.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

What is power?  Power is the ability to use one’s resources to put ideas into action.  Where the rub is in all of this is the intention behind the power, the outcome it seeks and whether the outcome harms others for the benefit of the one in power.  Even John Adams after writing, Power always thinks… that it is doing God’s service when it is violating all his laws, when he assumed the power as President fell into the power trap when he pushed the Sedition Act through Congress that forbade any negative speech against him or his administration.   Jefferson and Madison brought light to this evil when pushing back with the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions that nullified Adam’s unethical and unconstitutional act. 

There isn’t any one of us who are immune to abusing the power that God gives us.  The whole point of what I’ve written above centers around Jesus, who was linked as one with the Power of God, said,  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22).  As long as we are linked to Jesus and his mind, heart and power, then we will serve others rather than harm them.   The Constitution rests in the reality of God when its laws are followed instead of manipulated for personal gain. 

Today, another election will come and go.  But what will never depart from us is the truth of God as revealed through his patriarchs, matriarchs, judges, prophets and fully in Jesus who remains ever vigilant within us in his Spirit.   The best gift we can offer anyone, including the investment of our time in politics, is to listen to and respond with the Power of God instead of the pseudo power of a self-centered will.  

History, whether biblical or national, reveals over and over again that the self-centered will leads to perdition.  It is our responsibility to remain one with God and then to use God’s Power to stand up to the evil in our midst.  The other point I wish to leave with you is that we cannot transform evil.  Only God can.  We may work to arrest evil, but only the presence of God can transform evil as Jesus released the demons from the Gerasene Demoniac (Mark 5).   

As St. Paul received Power from on High, we too share in the same Power of God that does no harm, but offers life to those willing to receive Him.  For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.  2 Timothy 1. 

Vote to elect Jesus as your Master when you visit the polls.

Peace,

Fr. Mark

Father Mark, Reflections

Spirit

Scene at a high school football game:

Home team stands yelling:  “We’ve got spirit yes we do!  We’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you?”

Visitor stands responds with greater volume: “We’ve got spirit yes we do!  We’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you?”

Home team responds with a more resounding volume:  “We’ve got spirit yes we do!  We’ve got spirit, how ‘bout you?”

The cheer plays out after a few more rounds as everyone is gassed out from screaming.

This is one kind of spirit.  Its lots of fun.  It’s especially been hyped up during the recent political season. 

How does the Spirit of God play into this?   Let’s take a look at Elijah (19):

The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”  Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

God communes with us in the quiet.  Elementary school teachers know how to quiet a room of noisy children.   They begin to decrease their volume and number of words.  It’s only when we’re in a state of quiet, when we can hear. 

Prayer in its most intimate form is discovered in the process of listening to God—for that gentle whisper.  I have to assess myself if I am quiet enough to hear God instead of my own thoughts.   I instruct those who are searching for ways through spiritual conflict or malaise to begin prayer with an appetizer of talking to God about everything that comes to mind until we have nothing left to say.  Once we’re empty and words and thoughts, the real prayer begins.  After all, why go to a professional for advice about a matter and once finished explaining our situation, get up, turn around and leave before the professional has the opportunity to respond to us?  The same is true with prayer. 

God will fill every inch of our being with his astounding love and wisdom if we but wait long enough to hear the Holy One’s gentle whisper summoning us to embrace us with Heaven.

Listen for the Gentle Whisperer.  And be filled.

Fr. Mark 

Father Mark, Reflections

Asking the Right Question II

Incense represents an offering to God and an image of the Divine Mystery that we cannot grasp.

Years ago, I taught a two weekend 38 hour listening skills course for church members around our diocese “called “The Calling and Caring Ministry. I recall a statement taught in the class that I had never thought of before: “The answer you get is the question you sent.”

The crux of the matter is that if I am asking a question, I am the one responsible for “languaging” the question so that the listener can understand it to the point that they may give a clear response. If the person doesn’t understand the question it’s mostly my fault in communicating the question clearly to them.

Our questions often reveal the level of our own understanding of the depth of complexity that we address. Jesus’ disciples were notorious for asking questions that were unrelated to where Jesus was attempting to lead them. Matthew 20 tells the story of a mother who asks Jesus if her two sons can sit on the right and left of him in his kingdom. Poor insight. The need to feel important, more important than others reveals one’s spiritual poverty. Then there’s the story of the disciples arguing in Luke 9, “Who is the greatest? Until one is immersed within by the acceptance and love of God, one will hunger for worth and importance. Being one with God dissolves the need for rank. In john 9, the disciples ask Jesus, whether the fault was the man’s or his parents’ for the reason he was born blind. Instead of looking at whose at fault, why not look at what it might take to heal the man? In Mark 13 the disciples ask when Jesus would return again during the end of the age, wanting to know, “When?” Jesus tells them that it’s not for them to know. Human beings have a canny habit of wanting to know when everything is going to happen as it gives us the illusion that we’re in control of our lives, safety, others and other things.

Our questions also reveal our level of understanding. After dialoguing with Pilate, Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” Pilate was looking for a definition or facts. Jesus was Living Truth in Pilate’s midst that Pilate could not realize.

There is sometimes a reason for our questions as they can reveal our agenda behind wanting to know the details of what’s coming. When we know the details, we think we feel secure, thus losing our true security in being one with the Spirit. Knowing God is our security, not the details.

Now I’m not saying any of this is easy. We so often seek security instead of God, desiring security more than God. It’s really difficult to let go of this and it’s never a one time event. “Letting go” and relying on God alone is a daily event into which we are invited in the moments of each day.

What are our questions really asking? Listen beyond the words to the spirit and intention behind them. And then ask God to help us release those questions into the most important question of all: “Lord, will you help me to want you and desire you above all other things? Will you heal my conflicted heart and become One with me? Will you manifest your presence within me to the extent that I too can say with Jesus, “The Father and I are One.”

Amen.

Father Mark, News, Reflections

Asking the Right Question

I was 29 when my first daughter, Erin, was born.  In my third year of ordained ministry I was beginning to slowly emerge from the condition of being “wet behind the ears.”   When we brought her home from the hospital, my wife put her into my arms, this beautiful mystery of being, and I looked at her with a sense of awe and wonder and said to myself: “Now, what do I do?” 

Sure, I learned to mix the formula, change the diapers and all the tasks that could be what I call, “measured” by following the directions.  But these matters were not what my question was addressing. 

There was a human being inside that little body and even more so, a soul.  How was I supposed to interact, connect, guide, support, love, allow the correct amount of autonomy, maintain boundaries and somehow father the child of God in my arms and who would be soon running around me revealing how little I knew the mystery of life that was living within her.  It wasn’t always about having the right answers, because people aren’t objects that respond to a general pattern of how things should be.  They respond uniquely out of their own sense of mystery contained within.   How could I help her find the God who created her, who lived within her while at the same time I was still learning (and am still learning now) how to remain connected to the One whose Peace passes all understanding?

There’s a danger in being a human being when we think we know the “answers” when we haven’t even known how to ask the right questions.   Our past becomes the conditioning of our present and future if we aren’t careful enough to gaze deeper and listen to the still small Voice that touches our soul more than our mind influences our thinking.  If we lose presence of mind and reduce God to a thought or set of rules, missing out on the omnipotence of Being who desires to immerse his Spirit within our own, who is already living within us and is waiting to emerge, then our lives can become a hollow shell without our even knowing it as we become lost in the details of the day. 

This is why worship, particularly the Eucharist, and a personal prayer life, specifically for me, contemplative prayer, is so necessary.  Anthony de Mello S.J. said that the most difficult part of the spiritual life is waking up and remaining awake to the presence of God in us, in our midst and in others.   Without this way of marking time, of maintaining contact, we go from awake to what is known now as a form of “woke” which can take many forms, none of which are worth living because woke isn’t life at all.

St. Benedict, nourished in Eucharist, the Daily Offices and in silence in the midst of a community of believers realized this and wrote the sacred truth: “Every day, we begin again.”   It brings me back to Erin as a babe in my arms, which was truly a new day begun again and leaves me asking still, “What do I do now?” 

May we all ask this question day after day because the idea of today being like the “same old, same old” of yesterday is simply a delusion.  It’s not the same at all. If we think so, we’re asleep again. 

By asking the question, “What do I do now?” means that I won’t see you today as I did yesterday, going by the past history of stereotypes that my conditioned mind acquires over time.  After all, God could have acted in you your life and if I don’t ask the question, I’ll never see it and we both will be the poorer for it.  Every time we observe God acting in another person’s life, God gets bigger.  It’s not that God gets bigger, but that our cataracts fall off. 

One of the saddest experiences I go through as a priest is to hear people talk of others, of their idiosyncrasies, weaknesses and faults without looking for the God and good who lives within them—for the beauty that does live within them if we just wake up long enough to look.   The result?  We screen out people. Then conflict emerges in the congregation between neighbors, in town, county, state and country. 

God knows I have my faults.  I struggle with organization sometimes, can forget things, be self-preoccupied with other “to do’s” so that I don’t hear what others are telling me and there are times when I need more time to make decisions because I’m in a spot where there are about a half dozen choices and the clarity just hasn’t reached the space between my ears yet.   These are the parts of life that defy an easy answer that Dear Abby could give you. Discernment is a lifelong practice of patience, listening and waiting.  It’s called being Spirit led and praying that the decisions we make on a day to day basis don’t come from our own perception but God’s Wisdom. 

Erin is now 40.  When I look at her, sometimes the question still comes from within:  “Now, what do I do?”  If I don’t ask the question, I am projecting who I think she is on her rather that look for the person that God created her to be within her—as she is this day.  Forgive me for the times that I forgot to ask.  

Peace,

Fr. Mark